The Goddess doesn't really believe that she might die until she sees Bethi lying there on the pillow, so still. The kitten is squeaking fear directly into the Goddess's skull and after a moment she realizes that she is screaming too. She doesn't think she'll ever be able to stop.
She has grown up around cats all her life. Maybe it's silly to have a favorite, but she bottle-fed Bethi when she was small, a warm squirming body who didn't care how steady her tiny hands were, just that they were there. And she took care of the rest of the litter too - Mother Proudfoot had taught plenty about compassion for the less fortunate. But in the end, Bethi was the one who stayed, curling her tail around the Goddess's neck at bedtime. And now, because Asheth is smart and dangerous and more than a little cruel, Bethi is dead.
Christopher is still there in the wall and she has to stare at him a moment before she even recognizes him. In the moment that her eyes focus, she hates him with a kind of passion that scares her a little. If he'd never come, if he'd never brought the books, she never would have known what it was really like to live in the outside world. She might never have thought to ask Asheth her question. And the knowledge that she has can never be given back.
She doesn't quite have a plan yet -- the shock is still pushing in around her like thick, soft cushions -- but she hears the priestesses responding and she knows she has to do something. So she smacks him hard on the nose with a bracelet (he deserves it), knowing that he'll disappear. Then she lets herself sob.
Mother Proudfoot is the first person to approach her, and the Goddess spends a moment hating her as well, because it feels better than hurting does. The priestess has to know what becomes of the Living Ones, and she's old -- old enough to have seen this happen time and time again. Perhaps she sees them like the Temple cats, the Goddess thinks, blending into one another and only worth notice when they are especially cute.
But even as she thinks this, the Goddess knows it isn't true, a disservice to the woman. Proudfoot lets the Goddess cry into her shoulder and another priestess eases into the room to take Bethi. The woman is whispering about the kitten and although the Goddess's voice cracks when she talks, she has to speak up.
"I want the kitten," she says. Not because it's her only connection to Bethi -- Bethi has had half a dozen litters and there are a myriad of cats to choose from -- but because of what it represents. There will be a new Living One soon, but she's not going to give up on herself, no matter what it takes. Millie wouldn't.
She'll be Millie. That's what she's wanted, secretly, ever since she finished the first book in the series. She knows that Millie wouldn't give up, even with insurmountable odds. She'd get the top grade in French despite Miss Beauregard disliking her. She'd borrow the money for her school fees if she had to. And that gets her thinking about people she can lean on. Christopher wouldn't be her first choice if she had any other. He is just a boy, after all. But he understands honor and has been pretty kind, considering.
"Of course you can have the kitten," Mother Proudfoot says, patting her head. She's clearly hoping that the small creature will distract Millie from her grief.
Millie allows this to happen. A priestess runs for a milk dropper fashioned out of an old doll bottle, another finds some milk, and Millie wipes the tears from her face and begins to feed the kitten. The priestesses hover anxiously for longer than Millie likes. Millie is refusing to think about her portent, concentrating on the kitten in her arms. She is squeaky and demanding and wants to eat much faster than is good for her.
There's a burning feeling in the pit of Millie's stomach. That is probably where her anxiety has gone, she thinks. The priestesses are giving each other concerned looks over her head when they think she isn't looking, and someone has taken Bethi away when she wasn't looking, and changed the sheets. She's sad that she didn't get to say goodbye, but then again not; that's not the way she wants to remember Bethi.
They seem reluctant to leave, even after the kitten finishes her milk and settles down for a nap on Millie's lap. Millie has managed to stop crying, the tear tracks itching as they dry. She plays with the tiny feet, counting the little toes. And then she counts again.
"She's got a holy foot!" she says, holding up the kitten for Mother Proudfoot's inspection. The kitten mews sleepily in protest, but Mother Proudfoot smiles.
"I will call her Proudfoot," Millie says, in a burst of inspiration. Mother Proudfoot lifts her eyebrows in surprise, but there's a touch of color at her cheeks. She's clearly flattered. And then Millie yawns.
"I think it's about time for bed, don't you?" Mother Proudfoot says, and Millie takes the hint. The priestesses leave, most for their own beds. Millie is still awake, however, an hour later, when a tight knot of inner priestesses walk slowly past her room, sharing a quiet but heated discussion.
"As soon as possible--" One priestess is saying, and there are murmurs of agreement before they've gone too far down the hallway for Millie to hear any more.
She doesn't sleep much more that night, in fact, and her dreams are troubled when she does. Christopher's shade is in her wall, even though he's long gone, probably being scolded by Gabriel DeWitt. She'd rather be scolded any day than... than this. She'd felt a bit guilty to take it, but now she's glad for it. She has to figure out how he walks into other worlds so she can do the same thing.
She gets up to go to the bathroom long after everyone has made it to bed and sees the dark blood in her undergarments. She isn't entirely surprised -- she did learn about this when a priestess taught her hygiene, after all -- but it adds another sense of urgency to her escape. She's a woman now and surely Asheth will begin to reject her soon. She has to get out before the magic fades.
She does sleep, eventually.
Everyone is terribly nice to her in the morning, which makes Millie feel like she has a spear hovering right in front of her chest, just waiting for an order to be thrown. She's glad for the excuse of the kitten to stay close to her room and not talk much. She doesn't tell Mother Proudfoot about her moon's blood or the cramping in her stomach, but she doesn't eat much and she can tell that people are looking at her again in a weird way.
She pretends that she wants to take her afternoon nap early, since she didn't sleep well the night before, and in her room she gathers up the things that she wants to take with her. It isn't much - her books, her kitten, and the bottle. She can't leave the kitten here. The priestesses are much too busy to take care of her, and anyway, Millie likes her and her little seven-toed foot. She'll need a friend in her new world. Christopher can keep her at the Castle while Millie is at school.
It seems to make the most sense to go to him. He brought the books, after all, so schools like those must exist in his world, and she really isn't sure that they exist in hers. Plus, she has to go far enough away that the Arm of Asheth won't find her, and the army has quite a long reach. Another world will do, surely. They don't all have a second self to leave behind, after all.
She lies in bed and pretends to sleep, stroking Proudfoot and thinking about all the things she wants to do when she gets to school. She'll find a group of friends, learn math, pull pranks, be a perfectly normal girl. She won't ever have to worry about Asheth again. She's given Asheth twelve years of her life, and that's more than enough. Asheth will just have to not be greedy.
Finally she gets up and listens very hard. She doesn't hear anyone else walking about, so she carefully strips off her jewelry. It didn't seem right to keep it, since technically it's Temple property. And anyway, it jingles so. Then she picks up her books and her kitten and tries to walk into the Place Between.
It's harder than Christopher made it sound. She walks into the wall six times before she gets the hang of it, and the cold dampness of the place catches her completely by surprise. Even during the rainy season, it's never this unpleasantly chill in her world. Her old brown robe, chosen for its unobtrusiveness, is much too thin for the stabbing wind. She grits her teeth and goes on, carefully, tucking the kitten into the hood of her robe. It keeps up a steady whine as Millie makes her slippery way across the rocks. Millie makes soothing noises but Proudfoot doesn't care. She's only a kitten, after all. Millie tries to be patient.
She runs into a problem, though. There are a lot of little valleys here and she has no idea which one is Christopher's world. She's not even sure that she'd recognize it if she did. She has a vague impression of green grass and overcast sky, but that's not much to go on.
She's tired, so tired, and more than a little disheartened. She stops to rest for a moment, sitting down on a rock that's just a little too pointy too be comfortable, and she shuts her eyes and breathes.
Normally she would pray to Asheth during hard times. That doesn't seem appropriate right now. She's got to lean on herself. The kitten squeaks and Millie is shivering, but she gets up and she goes on.
Slipping and sliding through the Place Between, she studies five worlds before she finds Christopher's. She can feel his magic there in the valley before the entrance, even though the entrance looks like it's almost entirely blocked. She has to squint very carefully at the spell to find the tear in it, but she and Proudfoot make their way through it and into another world.
Now, her story can really begin.